Nickelodeon’s big-screen versions of its hit kiddie shows have been a pretty sorry lot, so one might be forgiven for not expecting much from “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.” But in the event the little picture proves a happy surprise–sprightly, colorful and fun. Not having seen the series, I can’t testify to the picture’s fidelity to it, but on its own this feature provides eighty minutes that children should enjoy and adults will find more charming than not.
When the movie opens SpongeBob’s boss Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) is opening a second Krusty Krab restaurant and our hero (Tom Kenny) fully expects to be named manager; his pal Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), a goofy starfish, is ready to celebrate big-time. Unfortunately Krabs promotes Bob’s neighbor Squidward (Rodger Bumpass) instead. But that’s not the worst of it: the evil Plankton (Mr. Lawrence), owner of the dumpy, unsuccessful rival eatery the Chum Bucket, aims to steal Krabs’ famous sandwich recipe by stealing the crown of arrogant King Neptune (Jeffrey Tambor), convincing him that Krabs is the thief, and then persuading the short-tempered monarch to do away with his rival. Fortunately sweet princess Mindy (Scarlett Johansson) persuades her father to give SpongeBob and Patrick six days to go the notorious Shell City, get back the crown and save Krabs. The mission leads to a series of episodic adventures for the duo (which vary in their humor quotient, of course), who must not only contend with the rarely-welcoming creatures they meet along the way but a thug named Dennis (Alec Baldwin) hired by Plankton to rub them out. The boys make it to Shell City, which turns out to be something quite different from what they expected, and get help returning to Bikini Bottom from none other than “Baywatch” star David Hasselhoff, who proves to be a champion swimmer indeed. But once returned they have to contend with the fact that Plankton’s evil schemes go far beyond the food-service industry into a megalomaniacal plot to rule their little world.
There are bits of this scenario that bear an uncomfortable resemblance to “Finding Nemo” (the whole Shell City business recalls the dental office doings in that Pixar picture), but the conventional animation here has a distinctive look of its own, and the writing has a good-natured tone that keeps things from dragging at this extended length. Familiarity with the characters will doubtlessly increase the enjoyment, but even the uninitiated should have a pleasant time.
“SpongeBob” does slip periodically. There are too many of the butt shots that seem obligatory in kiddie movies nowadays, and a few too many belches, too. The big sequence involving Hasselhoff goes on too long and isn’t nearly as funny as the makers obviously intended. And the repeated theme of “kid power”–at one point we even hear the cry of “Kids rule!”–has an unfortunate pandering tone. But for the most part “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” has an easygoing, gentle sweetness that doesn’t cloy, and should entertain family audiences in theatres nicely before taking up permanent residence on home video shelves.